House easily passes customs bill

Legislation to bolster the nation’s customs enforcement efforts easily passed the House on Friday despite significant Democratic opposition.

The House voted 256-158 to pass the long-awaited measure, which heads to the Senate for final approval next week and will then receive President Obama’s signature.  

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Months of talks led to a final deal unveiled on Wednesday by House and Senate lawmakers. The legislation is the fourth trade bill to get a congressional nod this year and is a key part of the president’s legislative agenda.

Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanRyan has 'no idea' who will win election Sunday shows preview: Both sides gear up for debate FULL SPEECH: Obama celebrates African American museum opening MORE (R-Wis.), who helped craft the measure as the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, called it “the most comprehensive rewrite of our customs laws in a generation.”

The measure reauthorizes and modernizes the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, streamlines rules to stop importers from skirting U.S. antidumping and countervailing duties, adds new protections for intellectual property and provides more tools to crack down on currency manipulation.

But several top House Democrats complained that the legislation would fail to curb climate change, crack down on currency manipulation or tackle human trafficking issues.

Only 24 Democrats supported the measure.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) chided Republicans for pushing the bill, which she argued merely provides rewards to lawmakers for their support of trade promotion authority, or “fast-track,” this summer.

“This legislation began as a strong bipartisan trade enforcement bill, it has degenerated into a vehicle for all of the toxic special interest promises that have been made to secure passage of the TPA,” Pelosi said on the floor.

“They have poisoned a strong trade enforcement bill,” she added.

Pelosi said the measure is a clear statement that Republicans are denying the climate crisis, “turning a blind eye on human trafficking" and refusing to address currency manipulation "that destroys millions of American jobs.”

Pelosi also argued that the bill would bar U.S. trade negotiators from discussing climate in the context of a trade agreement.

“You cannot separate climate and commerce,” she said. “We cannot accept Republicans' willful blindness to this connection."

Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.), the top Democrat on Ways and Means, also strongly opposed the deal and lobbied his colleagues to back his efforts.

His most serious concerns centered around amendments to the trade promotion law that he said would make it harder "to address some of the most important trade-related problems of our time, including climate change and human trafficking."

"I strongly oppose this conference report and am disappointed that we passed up an important opportunity for truly bipartisan action on customs in trade legislation," he said. 

Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), who has pressed lawmakers and the White House to endorse stronger currency provisions, said the conference report ties the hands of trade negotiators from dealing with climate or currency. 

Tougher currency language by Sen. Charles SchumerCharles SchumerSaudis hire lobbyists amid 9/11 fight Consumer bureau remains partisan target after Wells Fargo settlement Overnight Healthcare: Planned Parenthood deal in sight in Senate | A new 'public option' push MORE (D-N.Y.), backed by Levin, was never expected to survive a conference because it is opposed by the White House.

Levin said the conference bill "includes a meaningless provision that simply calls for more talk, more deference to the Treasury Department, and no real action" on the currency issue.

Democrats got some powerful backing in their opposition from the National Retail Federation and the AFL-CIO.

Retailers urged congressional lawmakers to reject the measure unless it included a long-stalled online sales tax provision.

William Samuel, director of government affairs at the AFL-CIO, objected to "controversial and partisan provisions that weakened or unacceptably altered it and would make it more difficult to negotiate trade agreements that are good for workers and the environment."

The AFL-CIO strongly opposed inclusion of a provision that would permanently ban states and localities from taxing Internet access or commerce.

But there was clearly enough support to move the measure through.

Rep. Gerry ConnollyGerry ConnollyOvernight Cybersecurity: Fallout from Yahoo's massive breach | House panel holds Clinton IT aide in contempt | Privacy groups want WhatsApp probe Oversight Committee votes to hold Clinton IT aide in contempt of Congress A clear signal on Georgia’s future MORE (D-Va.), one of 28 Democrats who supported fast-track, said he would back the measure, and called the bill a “significant improvement” over the House measure, which he opposed. 

Despite some shortcomings, business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) supported the deal and issued key-vote alerts.

Linda Dempsey, NAM’s vice president of international economic affairs the bill is needed to beef up enforcement of current policies that are icosting manufacturers “billions of dollars each year and allowing unfair competition to undermine U.S. manufacturing operations without remedy.”

“Today’s vote will bring us one step closer to updating our nation’s outdated customs and border policies and improving trade facilitation and enforcement," Dempsey said.

"It’s now time for the Senate to keep its commitment to growing manufacturing in the United States by moving on this legislation as soon as possible.”